by Jason Lacharite
In the Winter/Spring 2013 issue of Inroads, Brad Kempo published a rather spirited piece on the potential of technology to transform Canada’s democratic politics, claiming that electronic referendums (e-referendums), and to a lesser extent internet voting, could augment the scope of public participation to better inform crucial policy decisions.1 This push to supplement Canada’s increasingly “executive-oriented” decision making structures with a form of plebiscitarianism is not new, and has been pitched as a way to reduce the country’s lingering democratic deficit.
Mr. Kempo’s article raises the wider question of the efficacy of referendums per se. I contend that for all their promise, such political instruments manifest a number of serious limitations. Moreover, there is very little evidence that they actually improve the overall quality of democratic intercourse. The idea that referendums – whether of the traditional or high-tech variety – can complement representative democracy, promote voter education or allow constituents to make well-reasoned judgements remains fiercely contested. What we do know is that referendums can be used tactically to achieve certain political objectives, obscure highly complex and interrelated issues, and threaten the rights of minorities.